Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

The following excerpt is from an essay written by Professor Nathaniel Persily and published in the April edition of Journal of Democracy (Volume 28, Number 2). Click here to access the full article.

If one had tried to write the story of the 2016 digital campaign for the U.S. presidency before knowing the election’s result, the account might have gone as follows. “Hillary Clinton improved on the model built by the successful campaigns of Barack Obama, perfecting the art of microtargeting and the use of online tools to mobilize voters through social media. To be sure, her ability to vastly outspend her opponent on all forms of campaign communication (television, digital, get-out-the- vote, or otherwise), as well as her opponent’s relative weakness on all traditional metrics, makes it hard to say whether the new media strategies were decisive. Nevertheless, Clinton’s victory suggests that having a diverse portfolio of media and campaign strategies, while spending an increasing share of campaign funds on digital tools, presages a future in which traditional electioneering becomes married to new technology.”

Professor Nathaniel Persily
Professor Nathaniel Persily

The actual story of the 2016 digital campaign is, of course, quite different, and we are only beginning to come to grips with what it might mean for campaigns going forward. Whereas the stories of the last two campaigns focused on the use of new tools, most of the 2016 story revolves around the online explosion of campaign-relevant communication from all corners of cyberspace. Fake news, social-media bots (automated accounts that can exist on all types of platforms), and propaganda from inside and outside the United States—alongside revolutionary uses of new media by the winning campaign—combined to upset established paradigms of how to run for president. Indeed, the 2016 campaign broke down all the established distinctions that observers had used to describe campaigns: between insiders and outsiders, earned media and advertising, media and nonmedia, legacy media and new media, news and entertainment, and even foreign and domestic sources of campaign communication. How does one characterize a campaign, for example, in which the chief strategist is also the chairman of a media website (Breitbart) that is the campaign’s chief promoter and whose articles the candidate retweets to tens of millions of his followers, with those tweets then picked up and rebroadcast on cable-television news channels, including one (RT, formerly known as Russia Today) that is funded by a foreign government?

The 2016 election represents the latest chapter in the disintegration of the legacy institutions that had set bounds for U.S. politics in the post- war era. It is tempting (and in many ways correct) to view the Donald Trump campaign as unprecedented in its breaking of established norms of politics. Yet this type of campaign could only be successful because established institutions—especially the mainstream media and political- party organizations—had already lost most of their power, both in the United States and around the world.

The void that these eroding institutions left was filled by an unmediated populist nationalism tailor-made for the Internet age. We see it in the
rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Pirate Party in Iceland, the “keyboard army”1 of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the use of social media by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has 39 million followers on Facebook and 27 million on Twitter. We see it in the successful use of social media in the Brexit referendum, in which supporters were seven times more numerous than opponents on Twitter and five times more active on Instagram.2 And we see it in the pervasive fears of European government leaders, who were worried well before the U.S. election that Russian propaganda and other Internet- based strategies could sway their electorates. The Trump campaign, for all its uniqueness, was only the latest to ride a global technological wave that has accompanied deep dissatisfaction with legacy institutions both inside and outside politics.

Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, recently served as research director for the U.S. Presidential Commission on Election Administration. He is the editor of Solutions to Political Polarization in America (2015). This essay, written with support from the Stanford CyberInitiative and the Carnegie Foundation, is part of a book project exploring the Internet’s impact on U.S. democracy. It first appeared in the April edition of Journal of Democracy (Volume 28, Number 2).

Journal of Democracy Volume 28, Number 2 April 2017
© 2017 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

For fuller versions of the endnotes for this essay, visit article/can-democracy-survive-the-internet.